EPU Gun of the Week

Detonics Combat Master

Originally posted April 19, 2017.

A little while ago, I said:

>I think if I were doing NXE now rather than in the '90s, the
>compact .45 pistol DJ Croft carries would be a Detonics Combat Master
>rather than a Springfield V10.

To elaborate on that a bit, this is a Detonics Combat Master.

Detonics Combat Master Mk II, left side

Mind you, from much of a distance away, it would be hard to tell the difference, since the V10 Ultra Compact was basically a copy of the Combat Master. That's because every "subcompact" 1911-type pistol is basically a copy of the Combat Master.

Here's the thing: in the 1960s/early 1970s, when the original idea for what became the Combat Master occurred to an explosive engineer and amateur (in the sense that he was doing it for fun and not pay) gun designer named Pat Yates, there were no compact, full-power semi-automatic pistols on the market. There were plenty of compact semi-autos, dating back to the turn of the century—we've seen a few of them here, such as the Colt 1903 Pocket line and of course the Walther PP—but they were chambered for smaller, less powerful cartridges like .32 and .380 ACP. Colt also made a shorter version of the 1911 called the Commander, but it wasn't that much shorter (with a 4¼-inch barrel as opposed to the full-sized 1911's 5-inch one) and the frame wasn't reduced in size at all. In the early '70s, if you wanted a mass-produced handgun more powerful than that, which would fit into a pocket or otherwise be easy to hide about your person, your choices were basically:

a) A Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver in .38 Special;

b) A Colt Cobra, which was—at the risk of causing a holy war—pretty much the same thing;

c) nothing.

Note that I said "mass-produced". There were gunsmiths making one-off compact M1911-style pistols, most (if not all) of them actual 1911s that had been cut down to a smaller size. This was a tricky and expensive proposition, however, and out of the realm of possibility for most shooters. So Pat Yates decided he'd make his own. He was a mechanical engineer and a passable machinist—how hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turned out. The thing about the 1911 is that is doesn't really like being smaller than it was originally designed to be. Shortening the barrel and slide plays hell with the timing of the tilting-barrel locking system, and multiplies the forces acting on the recoil system (because it now has a shorter distance to cover before it comes up against the stop, but the same amount of energy coming out of the cartridge). It took Yates years of fiddling and tinkering to get his prototype to feed and function reliably, without breaking parts.

At the time, Yates's day job was working for a company called Excoa (the Explosives Corporation of America)¹, designing various bits and bobs used in the industry of blowing things up. (His is one of the names on U.S. Patent No. 4,000,696, "Cartridge for two component field mixed explosive".) When that company laid off a number of managers and engineers circa 1974, a few of them went and started a new company called Detonics Associates. If you saw the name at the start of this article and thought, As in "detonator"? you were pretty much right; that was the original intent of the company, not making guns.

One of Detonics' founders, Sid Woodcock by name, knew of Yates and his hobby of trying to build the perfect compact .45 pistol.² Yates didn't go to work at Detonics; after his own career at Excoa was cut short, he'd taken a job making missile parts for the Navy in California. At Woodcock's insistence that there could be a market for his tiny .45, Yates sold the rights to produce his design to Detonics, and consulted with them on the ins and outs of adapting the design for mass-production.

When the production Detonics Combat Master hit the market in 1977, it wasn't a cheap gun by any means—a Mark II like the one pictured above had an MSRP of $390 in 1980, which would be about $1,300 today. It was, however, a lot more affordable, and easier to get hold of, than having a similar sort of thing handmade to order by a gunsmith.

Let's take a closer look at this particular one and see what we can see about how they did it.

DCM Mk II, right side

I decided to leave the serial number visible on this one because a) it's 40 years old and b) that's part of the story. Combat Master serial numbers started at 2000 (the range before that was reserved for prototypes, samples, company presentation guns, and such), so this one—number 3011—is quite early. That might seem a little odd, since it's a Mark II, but the marks don't mean the same thing in Combat Masters that they usually mean. They're more like trim levels in cars, describing the packages available:

Later, there was a Mk VII, which was a special limited-production run for the CIA(!) featuring rounded corners, a flattop slide, and no sights. These things are presumably stupid-expensive nowadays, if any of them have found their way onto the civilian market at all (which I assume at least a few have).

Anyway, old No. 3011 here is an early Mk II; I haven't been able to find precise production figures for the original company's run (not unsurprising, given that that was three bankruptcies ago), but the overall total I've seen for the production of the three versions of Detonics that made the Combat Master, between 1977 and 2007 with numerous interruptions, is around 26,000. I would thus hazard the mostly-wild-ass guess that the 1,011th one off the line was made within the first year or two. As the "PAT. PEND." marking on the left side shows, it's early enough that the patents hadn't been granted yet when it was made.

Comparing a Combat Master to a full-size M1911A1 gives a sense of scale and shows just how small they really managed to make them:

Size comparison. Top: Full-size M1911A1. Bottom: Detonics Combat Master.

The Combat Master's magazine holds six rounds to the full-size 1911's seven, but is otherwise very familiar.

size comparison, full-size 1911 magazine vs. DCM magazine

One interesting design feature of the Combat Master is that the parts of the frame that aren't cut down are essentially the same as on the full-size pistol. The magazine catch is exactly the same. This means you can, in fact, put a full-size 1911 magazine in it if you want. It'll look a little silly:

DCM Mk II with full-size 1911 magazine inserted

But it'll work just fine, and provides another handy scale reference for how much smaller the Combat Master is.

The magazine actually contains one of the Combat Master's original marketing points, weirdly enough. Note the slot in the heel of the magazine.

DCM Mk II from beneath, showing DETONICS .45 AUTO stamp on magazine floorplate

That's there because the magazine follower has a tab on it (something to do with positioning the spring, I think?), and with the bottom half-inch or so missing, the tab needs somewhere to go when the magazine is fully loaded. It doesn't stick out of the slot very far, but it's certainly visible in it when, and only when, there are six rounds in the magazine:

loaded DCM magazine, showing follower tab in floorplate slot

This is a thing that would be there either way, but in a rather amusing bit of marketing, Detonics pretended it had a practical purpose and billed it as a "loaded magazine indicator". Possibly the only one in the industry. :)

Taking the Combat Master apart reveals both its unmistakable 1911 heritage, and the changes Yates, Woodcock, et al. had to make in order to get it to work in its smaller incarnation.

The disassembly follows a familiar pattern. After unloading, the slide must be drawn back a bit so that the slide stop lever and takedown pin can be worked free and pulled out. (It doesn't need to come back very far; just far enough for that smaller notch in the slide rail to clear the stop lever, the one that's just under where it says "patent pending".)

DCM disassembly, phase 1

It doesn't have to be cocked to do this, but having the hammer out of the way makes holding the slide partly to the rear a lot easier.

Once the pin is out, the slide comes forward off the rails...

DCM disassembly, phase 2

... and then the recoil spring and barrel can be removed from it.

DCM disassembly, phase 3

The spring and barrel are where the magic happens, in re the compact conversion. In this particular Detonics, the spring is in fact two springs, one nested within the other and wound in the opposite direction, both of them captive on a telescoping guide rod. (Later versions would have three springs packed in there, to make the package last longer in regular service.) This enables it to be strong enough for the system to work reliably, without having to be so stiff as to make the pistol harder to work by hand. (It also cures one of the full-size 1911's most annoying habits, namely its non-captive recoil spring making a break for it during disassembly.)

Meanwhile, the barrel has that very distinct flare in it, which eliminates the need for a bushing at the front of it. That, in turn, means the spring keeper can be enlarged to fill the whole spring guide in the slide below the muzzle, which makes the whole spring assembly that much sturdier. (At least I think that's the rationale.)

One side effect of the Detonics barrel flare is that the barrel can't be lifted out of/dropped into the slide, as with a regular 1911, Browning Hi-Power, et al.; instead, it has to be slid out through the muzzle opening in the slide.

detail shot, showing flared DCM barrel and how it can't be inserted parallel into slide

Looking up into the slide, we can see that the locking system works just the same as in any other Browning-lock pistol.

detail shot, interior of DCM slide

The late Jeff Cooper, who is an object of veneration among Tactical Handgun Dudes for his contributions to modern handgun shooting doctrine,³ raved about the Combat Master (not yet in production) in a 1974 magazine article, calling it "the smallest, lowest recoil single action .45 caliber semi-automatic in the world." I'm a little dubious about this claim, myself. I realize that I have soft office worker's hands, but there was nothing low about the Combat Master's recoil to me. Even with the period-correct Pachmayr grips that are on mine (I'm not sure if that was a factory option or something a previous owner added, but it's a welcome addition either way), I put 18 rounds through it on my first range trip and decided that was enough for one day. It's surprisingly heavy for its size, but it's still firing .45 ACP out of a little short barrel and a grip frame a normal-size hand can only get three fingers on (one of which is busy operating the trigger). I guess I'm not a bad enough dude to rescue the president.

(At the moment, I would have some hard thinking to do as regards whether I'd even bother trying, but that's a different issue.)

Another slightly irritating thing about the Combat Master is its stubby little hammer. It's designed that way for a good reason, namely, because if it were a full-size 1911 hammer on that tiny frame, it would be even bitier than the full-size 1911 is; however, this particular design is very hard to get hold of, even with the flattened cutout at the back of the slide to help (that's what it's for). I've seen pictures of early Combat Masters with a different, sort of Commander-style skeleton hammer, which looks a little easier to get a thumb onto, but mine—although quite early—has the fully bobbed version instead. It's ridged, so it's clearly not meant to be impossible to use (like, for instance, the bobbed hammers on double-action-only Smith & Wesson revolvers); I just have a hard time with it. Again, maybe that's just because of my soft, weak white-collar thumbs.

(I should note here that replacing the grip safety with one that has a large beavertail, in order to facilitate switching out the hammer for one with more of a spur on it and still prevent hammer bite, isn't an option, because the Combat Master doesn't have a grip safety; that part of the original 1911 has been permanently disabled in the Detonics. It still looks like a separate part, but doesn't do anything and, as far as I know, can't be replaced. Besides, adding a larger beavertail would partially defeat the purpose of making the gun smaller and more packable in the first place.)

The Combat Master was successful enough that Detonics was able to expand its product line in the '80s, producing other 1911-based pistols in different sizes and configurations. They tended to have "master" in their names; there was the Scoremaster, for instance, was a full-size 1911 clone for match shooting, and the Servicemaster, a Commander-length model. I seem to recall Officer Tackleberry in the Police Academy movies had a Scoremaster, but I could be misremembering; I haven't seen any of those films in a long, long time.

Unfortunately, one thing it wasn't was successful enough to actually keep the company going. As is so often the case with these things, the Detonics company that exists today is not the original one that made these guns. It is, in fact, the fourth company to use that name, and the current reincarnation (unlike the previous two) doesn't even make the Combat Master any more. In fact, looking over their website, it doesn't appear that they really make anything any more; it looks like your classic vaporware site, only for a gun rather than a phone or game or Moller Skycar.

So, the Combat Master. Not, IMO, an ergonomic triumph, but I like it; maybe not to the extent that I would want to rely on it for my everyday shooting needs, but as an engineering exercise and a signpost of trends to come, very interesting.


¹ This is a company-name construction that used to be quite popular; in my mind, I always associate it with the 1950s, though it's certainly older than that. The company with a name in that style people are most likely to have heard of nowadays is probably Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America. Come to think of it, that's probably why I associate that naming style with the '50s—a lot of vintage TV features loud and prominent sponsorship by Alcoa.

² While researching this item online, I got the impression that there is a bit of a beef among Detonics fanciers as to which of the two, Woodcock or Yates, was the real mastermind behind the Combat Master. Some old magazine articles about the original Detonics don't mention Yates at all (possibly because he didn't actually work for the company), while the longest item I could find talking about Yates's involvement in the project was by... uh, Yates. Still, his name is on the patents, and his account of the pistol's early development rings true to me, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

³ Among much else, Cooper consulted on the development of the Dornaus & Dixon Bren Ten, described with tongue-in-cheek verity by Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons as "The Most Tactical Pistol". He's credited with inventing the two-handed stance that is still the Done Thing in handgun shooting, along with popularizing the bizarrely radical notion that you should consider using the sights when shooting a pistol. He was still a regular contributor to American gun magazines back when I was routinely reading such things, and to be honest, I found him a bit much. A man who knows he's a visionary is best taken in small doses.